The rapid, confused emergence of modernism in the late nineteenth century as a broad cultural movement self-conscious of its break from history drew architecture into its wake everywhere in Europe. But nowhere more than in Vienna. The reason is not far to seek. It lies in the city’s great mid-nineteenth-century redevelopment, the Ringstrasse. There Austrian liberalism, as is the way of triumphant movements, built after 1860 its city on a hill, celebrating in stone its victorious values of rational ethical Recht and refined aesthetic Kultur. The Ringstrasse area was built into the old imperial capital like an Austrian Canberra or Brasilia into the wilderness. In a grand, homogeneous space was concentrated a complex of monumental public buildings—museums, theaters, the houses of constitutional politics, etc.—and palatial apartment buildings to house the elite. Conspicuously missing from this model city-within-a-city was any place for the industrial workers and work life on which the power of its builders largely rested.
Two features gave the Ringstrasse its importance for the origins of modernism in Austria: its power as a cultural symbol and its historicist style, in which buildings were constructed on Gothic, Renaissance, and neoclassical models. Such was the symbolic force of the new quarter that the Austrians named the whole era of liberal ascendancy for it: die Ringstrassenära, as the English call the same era, after their queen, the Victorian Age. Whether evoking pride or arousing revulsion, the Ringstrasse made of architecture a major subject of public passion and controversy. Thus a contemporary liberal historian, Heinrich Friedjung, hailed the Ringstrasse development as a redeemed pledge of history, wherein the labors and sufferings of centuries of ordinary burghers, whose wealth and talent, long buried, were finally exhumed “like huge beds of coal” in the nineteenth century. “In the liberal epoch,” Friedjung wrote, “power passed, at least in part, to the bourgeoisie; and in no area did this attain fuller and purer life than in the reconstruction of Vienna.” The architect Adolf Loos, on the other hand, in one of his earliest and most arresting critical forays, branded Ringstrasse Vienna in 1898 with an epithet that stuck: “the Potemkin city.” Its architecture he viewed not as the symbol of a fuller and purer life, but as a false front, screening the hollowness and corruption of Austrian society.
In the symbolic struggle over mid-century liberal culture, the so-called historical “style-architecture” in which the Ring was executed became an issue. For the builders and champions of the Ringstrasse, the multiplicity of historical styles, each usually associated with the function of the building it clothed, was itself a sign of the assimilation of the riches of the past by the new educated man. Each building was executed in the style of an era associated with its function: the Parliament in Greek classical, the Rathaus in Gothic, the style associated with the medieval commune, the university in Renaissance style, and the theater…
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